Hong Kong International Airport and other transit hubs under threat as Qantas moves towards 20-hour non-stop flights between Melbourne and London, Sydney and New York

Danny Lee
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Hong Kong International Airport and other transit hubs under threat as Qantas moves towards 20-hour non-stop flights between Melbourne and London, Sydney and New York

Hong Kong and other transit airport hubs for one-stop flights face being snubbed by passengers as the stars gradually align for Qantas’ ambitious bid to realise 20-hour flights.

Working towards a year-end deadline to order new planes, Project Sunrise is the Australian carrier’s drive for non-stop flights connecting Melbourne with London, and Sydney with New York, with four classes of travel, including economy and first by 2022-23.

“We do think the project plan and business case for [Project] Sunrise has the potential of really working for us,” said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce, in comments to reporters on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) meeting of industry leaders in Seoul last week.

Singapore Airlines holds the title for the world’s longest flight on its non-stop Singapore-New York service, which lasts less than 18 hours but only has business and premium economy seats.

Giving the latest update on Sunrise, Qantas said it has concluded its evaluation of potential aircraft types and has sought “the best and final” offers from Airbus and Boeing, that meet cost requirements and guarantee performance and reliability.

The results are due in August, which would pave the way for the airline to purchase new planes by the end of the year.

“We had very good discussions with both and they are both very keen to win this,” Joyce said. “What we are after from the manufacturer is to put their money where their mouth is by guaranteeing some of these performances. It has got to a threshold where we think it’s do-able, it’s going to be commercial.”

However, attempts to further redefine the allure of ultra long-range travel with sleepable bunk beds in the cargo deck will not fly.

Qantas has instead devised a health and well-being zone so passengers can stretch, which represents a departure from the eye-catching trend of stand-up bars serving alcoholic beverages. New seats in every class of travel will be installed too.

The airline has admitted both planes on offer, Boeing’s 777X series and the Airbus A350, would go the full distance between Australia and Europe/United States, but with some empty seats, which could upset environmentalists.

Transit hubs like Hong Kong International Airport would hope the move to ultra long-range travel will fail.

While Singapore relies on transit traffic, it has made itself a draw as a stopover destination through projects such as Jewel, a major entertainment facility in Changi Airport with a spectacular indoor waterfall as its key feature.

With Singapore Air already running ultra long-haul flights, it has far less to fear from their rise.

However, Hong Kong airport is years away from expanding and offering something unique to passengers and its main airline Cathay has shied away from operating longer flights than its 16-hour service to Washington.

Ultimately, Qantas could still cancel Sunrise.

“If the business case doesn’t work, if we don’t get the right commercial deal from Boeing or Airbus, if we don’t get the right deal from the pilots, we will be ruthless, we will kill the project,” Joyce said, adding if parts of the project were not resolved, the airline had no hesitation in “moving on”.

Negotiating with pilots is proving to be the trickiest hurdle to overcome.

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On Australia’s west coast, Perth kick-started one of the most unique ultra long-range flights, connecting the continents of Australia and Europe non-stop, with a 17-hour London service. The success of the route 16 months on could pave the way for a non-stop service to Paris.

Cathay Pacific still competes heavily for travel from Perth with 10 weekly flights and plans to add its newest, long range plane, the Airbus A350-1000 on the route.

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Out on the populous east coast, Qantas is all set to add non-stop flights from Brisbane to Chicago and San Francisco after US authorities last week approved a long-awaited application for Qantas and American to jointly cooperate flights between the US, Australia and New Zealand.

The addition of new non-stop US flights could put pressure on Cathay, who have actively promoted a one-stop option to the US via Hong Kong since Australia offered a limited number of non-stop flights and destinations were available.

Qantas' existing one-stop London flight via Singapore would continue, however, and the carrier would aim to pressure ultra long-haul rival Singapore Air for transit traffic, with the opening of a bespoke first class lounge later in November to add to its existing premium business class facility.

Further non-stops from Australia including Brisbane to Dallas and Seattle, Sydney/Melbourne to New York/ London/ Paris/ Frankfurt are being lined up as part of the Sunrise package, offering travellers in the Australia market the opportunity to bypass Hong Kong, saving several hours of travelling time.

Flights from the east coast to Brazil and the African continent would also be viable.

For all of Qantas’s ambitions, which could indirectly harm Hong Kong airport and rival-turned-friendly competitor Cathay Pacific, in a separate development, the airlines are going to appeal a decision rejecting their bid to work more closely between Hong Kong and Australia by code-sharing on some flights.

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In a letter released Wednesday, Cathay told Australia’s International Air Services Commission (IASC) that travellers had “abundant choice” to fly from secondary points to make one-stop connections.

“We will go back to the IASC and make sure we are clear on what those benefits are. I think they’ve interpreted this wrongly and the final determination is a chance to reverse this. It has been reversed before and we think there is a good case to be made,” said Joyce.

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